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Utah Legislature is rife with 'conflicts'

SALT LAKE CITY — Most Utahns trust the 104 part-time legislators, otherwise they wouldn't vote them into office.

But once lawmakers take a seat in the 75-member House and 29-member Senate, do they always make decisions in their constituents' best interests, or do they at times act to help themselves, their families, their own businesses, professions or special causes?

That's the ongoing issue of conflicts of interests in a part-time Legislature, and how best to deal with it.

One of every five bills introduced this year in the Legislature creates an apparent conflict of interest for the sponsor, an analysis by the Deseret News shows.

That means there is "a conflict between the private interests and the official or professional responsibilities" of a legislator, according to the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of law.

"Many believe that disclosure" of conflicts of interests "is not enough," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "But certainly more disclosure is needed. As it is now, it's sometimes hard to see where special interests arise that can warp legislation."

Not all conflicts are bad, and many are probably actually good.

Many part-time lawmakers use experience from their full-time professions to tweak laws affecting them — hopefully making them better — from dentists writing bills about dentistry, veterinarians writing about veterinary law and police writing bills about criminal law.

But conflicts — good or bad — abound, and lawmakers are debating this year how best to disclose those conflicts, even whether to allow members to abstain from voting when conflicts arise.

The Legislature, in theory, requires members to vote on every bill (although some have occasionally taken a walk to avoid problematic votes).

"It's best if (legislators) can recuse themselves from a vote," Jowers said. But Utah could also use a mechanism where other legislators could bring a possible conflict to the attention of an affected legislator. Most times, Jowers believes, the legislator would recuse himself if informed of the concerns others may have.

"Most legislators would actually welcome some direction, from an independent ethics commission or from colleagues," as to when it may be appropriate not to pursue a course that could put them into a conflict, he said.

"We desperately need more disclosure" of conflicts of interest, says Kim Burningham, former GOP House member and current chairman of Utahs for Ethical Government, the group running a legislative ethics citizen initiative.

"However, disclosure is only half a loaf," he adds. The ethics initiative reduces the actual conflicts by establishing limits on the amount of money that can be contributed and from whom it can be contributed, he said.

"The bottom line: Is any proposed legislation really giving good disclosure, and beyond that, does it reduce the degree of conflict?" Burningham said.

Conflicts of interests aren't new. In fact, leaders of both political parties say they are inherent in a citizen Legislature. The alternative is a full-time Legislature, something no current legislator advocates.

The Deseret News study shows that at least 177 of the 810 numbered bills and resolutions introduced this year create apparent conflicts of interest.

The newspaper made that judgment by comparing the title or content of bills with the professions of members and their spouses, as listed on the conflict of interest forms members file with the Legislature.

The News found that at least 67 of the Legislature's 104 members — or two of every three — introduced at least one bill each that created an apparent conflict.

Some conflicts are clear.

For example, Sen. Jon Greiner, R-Ogden, tied for the most such bills with nine. He is the police chief in Ogden, and much of the legislation he sponsored deals with criminal law and how police can treat criminals.

The titles of such bills he introduced are "Vehicle Impound Amendment," "Criminal Nuisance Amendment," "Pawn Shop Amendments," "Access to Crime Victim's Mental Health Records," "Enhanced 911 for Multi-line Telephone Systems," and "Bail Bond Recovery Amendments."

Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, a real estate broker and property manager, also introduced nine bills with apparent conflicts of interest, for good or bad, dealing with real estate.

Bill titles include "Joint Resolution Prohibiting Property Transfer Tax," "Common Interest Ownership Amendments," "Real Property Amendments," and "Disproportionate Rental Fee Amendments."

Working its way through the Senate is a bill already passed by the House that would increase the reporting requirements by legislators of possible conflicts. Any financial interest above $5,000 (with a few exceptions) must be listed, and a more detailed listing of the lawmakers' private business connections must be made.

However, that bill is much weaker than conflict of interest requirements in a citizen legislative ethics initiative now out for voter signatures by Utahns for Ethical Government.

In fact, it's the conflict of interest part of that initiative that has led some legislators to say they won't serve in the Legislature should it become law.

At the heart of the question is how to deal with legislators involved in complicated business and legal issues.

Specifically, should attorneys, certified public accountants and others who carry clients disclose who those clients are?

It may be rather easy to see a police officer's, or a teacher's, conflicts in criminal law adopted by the Legislature, or the amount of money lawmakers appropriate for public education.

But how do residents know whether an attorney/legislator is running a bill that could benefit a client? Or if a tax change suggested by a CPA/legislator saves money for one of his clients?

The current bill in the Senate makes no provisions for reporting clients. The initiative goes to some length trying to disclose any source of income over $10,000, so if a CPA had a client who provided that much of his income in the last year, he would have to list that client.

Conflicting interests

Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, a family-law attorney, introduced such bills as "Divorce Orientation Amendments" and "Emancipation Amendments."

Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, a veterinarian, introduced "Practice of Veterinary Medicine" and "Livestock Related Amendments."

Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, a developer, introduced "Construction and Fire Code Related Amendments" and "State Construction Code Adoption."

Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, an insurance agency owner, introduced "Utah Life and Health Insurance Guaranty Association Amendments" and "Amendments to Health Insurance Coverage in State Contracts."

Rep. Laura Black, D-Salt Lake, who works in labor relations for the Jordan Education Association, introduced "School District Division Amendments," "Public School Employee Auditory Protection Requirements," and "Background Check for School Sports Officials."

Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, a pediatric dentist, introduced "Establishing a State Dental School."

Rep. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, a pharmacist and owner of drug stores, introduced the "Pharmacy Benefit Managers Act."

Rep. Todd Kiser, R-Sandy, an insurance agent, introduced "Motor Vehicle Insurance — Lienholder Notification."

Contributing: Lee Davidson

e-mail: bbjr@desnews.com